You’re holed up at a coffee shop in downtown Asheville, sipping an espresso and pouring over a stack of trail guides. What would you like to do today—summit the East coast’s highest peak, or explore the East Coast’s deepest canyon? Scramble up the chutes and ladders of Grandfather Mountain, or weave gently through a verdant valley to reach a 70 foot waterfall? From this eclectic, craft-beer fueled city, nestled inside a lush basin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the choice is yours. The peaks and forests of Western Carolina are brimming with a dazzling array of hiking adventures. Here, ten trails to cross off your Asheville hiking bucket list.
1. The Grandfather Trail
At times, the Grandfather Trail may feel more like an obstacle course than a hiking path. An intricate series of ladders, walkways, and steel cables zig-zag up and across the three separate peaks of Grandfather Mountain. This is an out-and-back trail, featuring 2.4 miles of hoisting, scrambling, and hand-over-hand climbing each direction. The route edges along the crest of the mountain, ducking through stunted spruce trees and skirting across exposed rock faces. The views from the first two peaks are astonishing, but the true reward lies at the top of the third and tallest summit, 5,946 ft Calloway Peak. Come and see why John Muir once described Grandfather Mountain as “the face of all heaven come to earth.”
2. Crabtree Falls
Even before coming in site of the waterfall, visitors to Crabtree Meadows are captivated by the lush carpet of wildflowers that bloom in spring and early summer. The forest floor is awash with over forty varieties of flowers, creating a bejeweled background for the popular Crabtree Falls Trail. This 2.4 mile loop begins with a series of switchbacks, gently descending to the base of its namesake falls: a wispy white curtain of water cascading over a 70 foot beehive of dark rock. The remaining 1.5 miles climb out of the enchanted forest through creeks and over split-log bridges.
3. Looking Glass Rock
Looking Glass Rock is a steep granite monolith, rising like a cargo ship from the rolling waves of Pisgah National Forest. The trail to the top, however, is surprisingly benign; while certainly a challenge, the constant switchbacks really take the edge of the steep gradient. The single trail etched into the mountainside is an out-and-back that makes for a journey totaling 6.4 miles. The summit of Looking Glass is an anomaly in the Blue Ridge: flat-topped, thickly forested, and not particularly tall. In fact, you’ll be gazing up at the mountains that engulf you, not down upon them. It is the exposure factor, the thrill of standing on the edge of a sheer vertical drop off, that make this one of the most thrilling and popular hikes in the region.
4. Old Mitchell Trail
The Old Mitchell Trail leads you to the summit of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak East of the Mississippi River. From that lofty perch, surrounded by sky, immersed in chilled mountain air, allow yourself ample time to sit back and observe the world from one and a quarter miles above sea level. There are many options that lead to the top, and Old Mitchell is a classic: a four-mile loop with an out and back extension to the summit, and every step is above 6,000 feet! You’ll encounter the typical backcountry obstacles: a relentless climb gnarled with roots, rocks, and raspberry cane. However, to reach the top and be engulfed in a world of rippled Appalachian peaks, standing high above them all, is an experience that no hiker should miss.
5. Shining Rock
Perched high in the Great Balsam Range, the glittering quartz formations at the summit of Shining Rock make for a gorgeous and unusual spectacle. The bright swirling rock, emerging like frozen ocean waves from a dark coniferous forest and surrounded by soaring mountain views, creates a scene so lovely and dramatic it appears almost otherworldly. A section of the Art Loeb Trail, beginning at the Black Balsam parking area and meandering over a series of grassy balds is particularly exquisite way to reach “the crystalline cliffs.”
6. Waterrock Knob
The picturesque summit of Waterrock Knob is a mere half mile from the parking area, but don’t even dream of writing it off as a roadside attraction. With breathtaking views and readily accessible ridge hiking unspooling in both directions, Watterrock is the perfect jumping off point for exploring the Plott Balsam Range. The wide, grassy meadow at the start of the summit hike may be the most dramatic locale for a family picnic on the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway. To claim the best view possible, sneak past the summit onto a rock outcropping on the Southern side of the peak, and behold the lush Tuckasegee River Valley and the Nantahala National Forest spread out below, the Great Smoky Mountains unfurling into the distance.
7. Craggy Gardens
The Blue Ridge Parkway delivers you nearly to the pinnacle of Craggy Gardens, a heath bald of grey rock and pink-blooming rhododendron that soars 5,892 feet above sea level. At the summit, high-mountain grasses wave placidly in the foreground, set against panoramic mountain views. The trail is 1.4 miles round-trip and climbs only 252 feet in elevation: a huge payoff for minimal exertion. Cool tunnels of mountain laurel, twisted birch trees, and the occasional lookout make for an enjoyable journey as you meander to the top.
8. Hawksbill Mountain
The rocky summit of Hawksbill Mountain affords one of the most spectacular views in all of North Carolina. Two thousand feet below you, the Linville River threads through the bottom of the canyon, enveloped by nearly 12,000 acres of unadulterated wilderness. Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock, and Shortoff Mountain cut stately profiles against the peak-rippled horizon. This three-mile loop features a steep climb on the way up and a gentler, more gradual descent. The trail is accessible from Forest Service Road 1264 in Pisgah National Forest. Be aware that this road is closed from January-March.
9. Max Patch
It’s no wonder that Max Patch Meadow is considered the most gorgeous section of the entire Appalachian Trail. The summit is rounded and soft with grass, surrounded by rolling woods and pastureland that gradually swell into mountains, eventually becoming the sharp peaks of the Black Mountain Range, Blue Ridge, and the Smokies in the distance. Although the summit is only a few minutes walk from the parking area, jump on the Appalachian Trail for a day trip to Lemon Gap—or hike all the way to Maine, for that matter!
10. Lookout Mountain
Just fifteen minutes east of Asheville, the Lookout Trail swoops up the side of Lookout Mountain in a short and punchy half mile of rock scrambling and wide stairs hacked into the hillside. The view from up top is more intimate than the typical Appalachian vista. A series of peaks affectionately known as The Seven Sisters of the Black Mountain Range feel so close, it’s as if you could reach out and touch them. To add an extra hour to your hike, and to escape the crowds that can converge on the small rocky summit, descend via the East Ridge Trail. This leads to the Blue Gap Trail, which will bring you back to the parking lot.
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